Sunday, April 1, 2012

Try-Fail Cycles and the Self-Published Writer

This tweet from Damien Walter (@damiengwalter) is interesting:

“The problem with e-book self publishing is it lets you avoid the try-fail cycle that makes a good writer.”

Walter is a columnist at The Guardian, specialising in the weirder fringes of literature. He’s also in the middle of a #weirdthings hunt, so if your writing veers towards the odd and unusual, he’d love to hear from you (possibly, there is a chance he might have already been driven insane by an excess of eighth-rate self-published Miéville clones).

The comment is true, but it’s often twisted to mean: “Self-published writers are crap because they never went through the wallpaper-the-walls-of-your-bedroom-with-rejection-letters phase all writers have to endure.”

This, like just about every other daft stereotype human beings like to label each other with, is complete horseshit. There are many writers turning to self-publishing at the moment, and not all of them are barely literate morons foisting unedited, unreadable excrement onto the public, no matter how many times mainstream publishing tries to insinuate this.

I’ve experienced the classic try-fail cycle. I wrote horror stories and submitted them to magazines because that’s how Stephen King and a lot of other great writers started out. Unsurprisingly, I filled a couple of ring binders with rejection letters because my first stories weren’t very good. But I kept at it, got better, and then started to pick up acceptances in small press magazines. The stories were published (in the magazines that didn’t fold before publication) and I even picked up some nice reviews in places like the British Fantasy Society’s magazine. Then…

That was the problem. There was no then. The bigger magazines and anthologies needed to sell copies, and for that they needed recognised names. The mid-list writers were already starting to vanish from the horror shelves. I could see where the classic path was leading and that was nowhere.

For a try-fail cycle to work it actually has to be a cycle. In that the writer is able to go through enough iterations of the cycle in order to get good before they collapse into a pile of dusty bones. Sending a manuscript off to an agent or publisher, waiting twelve to eighteen months or however goddamn long it is for them to get back to you and tell you they can’t accept it because this year’s colour is Twilight, is not a cycle. That is what we call—in software development parlance—a waterfall, and—as any good software developer will tell you—waterfalls are what projects clunk down until they smash themselves to pieces at the bottom.

Ebook self-publishing can allow the writer to bypass the try-fail cycle, the tricky part is knowing when. Remember those barely literate morons foisting unedited, unreadable excrement onto the public I mentioned earlier. If your first act as a writer is to complete your word document and then upload it straight onto Amazon’s kindle platform, there’s a very good chance you’re one of them. On the other hand, if you’ve written some well-received short stories, have a novel your agent loves, and no bastard publishing house will give you a second glance, then maybe you should stop being so loyal to a failed system and use the alternate path advances in technology has opened up. The gatekeepers can, and do, get it wrong.

I don’t think the classic paths are useful anymore. They’re slow, inefficient, and—as with most activities where objective measures of quality are difficult—I suspect ‘Who you know’ is more of an indicator as to whether you’ll get published than ‘What you write’. Even though anyone can now be published with a click of a button, I think any writer serious about their craft should still look for some kind of path to hone their craft.

Although primarily focused on erotica, I think websites like are fantastic proving grounds for writers. Crucially, they put a writer’s work in the hands of the most important judges of all: readers. These are the people you will one day be asking to pull out their credit cards and buy your work. If you can’t get them to read it when it’s free, they’re certainly not going to pay for it.

These are the new try-fail cycles—the amateur story sites, the fan fiction sites, the online communities… Writers can’t fail to get published, but they can fail to get noticed, and that’s the biggest challenge to overcome in the new publishing landscape. (It’s always been the biggest challenge. For some reason we started to attach too much significance to ‘Being Published’)

I don’t sell ebooks because I’m clever at marketing (I’m not—relying on word of mouth when you write things people would rather not admit to reading…not a stellar plan). I sell ebooks because people read my stories online and want more. Selena Kitt, who sells considerably more books than me, had already built a massive following on Literotica before she founded eXcessica. More recently in the news, EL James is currently in negotiations valued in the millions of dollars for her Shades of Grey series—a series that originally started out as Twilight fan fiction posted online.

These people didn’t avoid try-fail cycles, they picked alternate ones that also happened to involve the most important people of all: (saying it again because it can’t be repeated often enough) readers. More routes exist now. Take advantage of them rather than bypassing them altogether.

M.E. Hydra

1 comment:

  1. > If you can’t get them to read it when
    > it’s free, they’re certainly not going
    > to pay for it.

    Super. That's just the message I needed today.